Why you should care
A growing number of fitness firms are turning to artificial intelligence to offer personalized training at home to users.
You’re running on the treadmill when the trainer tells you that you need to speed up further. As you’re cooling down after your workout, the trainer designs your routine for the next day. You did well, it tells you. Yes, you read that right. The trainer isn’t a human. It’s an artificial intelligence-driven platform that gleans what your body needs and what it’s capable of, and then designs your workouts and oversees your routines, even offering motivation when you need it.
This isn’t science fiction. For years, fitness enthusiasts looking for at-home routines suited to their needs and convenience have had to rely on personal trainers who make house calls. But these trainers aren’t affordable for most — the national average for a one-hour personal training session is between $80 at the gym and $120 at home. Now, a growing number of fitness firms are turning to AI to offer affordable, personalized training at home, relying on technological advances unavailable at the start of the decade. They’re tapping into an already lucrative fitness equipment market that’s expected to reach $12 billion by 2022 globally. In the last five years, the personal training industry in the U.S. has grown to an estimated revenue of $9 billion for 2019, according to market research firm IBIS World.
Munich-based Freeletics, which launched in 2013, is one of Europe’s most popular fitness apps. The app that offers AI-powered training plans has been #1 in the App Store and the Google Play Store numerous times in different European countries and topped at #3 in the U.S. App Store. The American market is currently their fastest-growing, with 14 percent of their users located in the U.S. In November 2018, American fitness giant Nautilus launched Max Intelligence, a cloud-based, adaptive coaching technology that uses AI to train users on the Bowflex cardio machine. Boltt Sports in Noida, India, and FitWell in London both offer AI health and fitness coaches via mobile apps. Boltt started in 2015 and Fitwell in 2014.
And Silicon Valley startup Tonal, a home-based workout system, attaches to the wall, and offers strength-building and cardio exercises based on your fitness ability through an AI personal trainer that measures your performance against every other rep you’ve done before. When you first set up the machine, you take a fitness test so the AI can begin to understand your athletic ability. The machines then decode exactly how much weight you’re capable of lifting during different exercises, and changes your routine as you get stronger. The company launched in stealth mode in 2015 and publicly made its intelligent fitness machines available only last year.
[Users are] surprised how accurate the weight suggestions are.
Aly Orady, founder and CEO, Tonal
“One thing we’ve heard users say again and again is that they’re surprised how accurate the weight suggestions are,” says Tonal founder and CEO Aly Orady. “They’re challenging but not too hard.”
What is often hard is translating the desire to get fit into actual regular workouts. Three-quarters of U.S. adults say they want to change something about their body, according to a survey from French technology company, ReportLinker. Yet 45 percent of respondents in the 2017 study admitted they’re not active at all. The AI-led intelligent personalized trainers help resolve three key factors contributing to that mismatch: constraints of time, worries about convenience and considerations of cost. The app from Boltt is free, FitWell has a free version or a yearly subscription for $60, and Freeletics has a training and nutrition coaching option for just $2.42 per week. As a physical setup, the Tonal workout system comes at a cost: $2,995, plus a $49 monthly subscription. The Nautilus system similarly works with two different Bowflex machines: the M6 for $1,699 and the M8 for $2,299, plus $14.95 monthly or $149 per year for the Max subscription. To access the AI customized workouts and the entire selection of videos, the subscription is required. But if you work out four days per week, you’d easily rack up $3,000 for a personal trainer within six weeks, surpassing the initial cost of the Tonal machine. After that, the $49 monthly subscription for Tonal is far cheaper than the $2,000 it would cost for four hour-long personal training sessions at home each month.
When a friend told Sonja Mayer, 25, about Freeletics in 2015, she was skeptical. She didn’t think an app could motivate her to work out. But she soon realized it wasn’t just a quick fix — the technology was teaching her how to live more healthfully through both exercise and nutrition coaching. “It’s about creating a whole new mindset,” says Mayer.
For sure, these AI-led personal trainers have their own limitations. “Although AI-driven fitness programs can potentially do a great job of organizing and delivering relevant workout content, I think they will fall short for most people compared to working with a trainer or coach,” says Justin Quandt, founder of The Foundry, an athletic club in Chicago. “They can’t replicate the accountability or empathy provided by a real human.” Some trainers also worry about whether these AI tools are the best for users less familiar with fitness regimens and what their bodies are capable of. “For individuals who are new to exercise, who have injuries or who may not have a clear understanding of the fundamentals of exercise, AI-driven fitness programs could potentially be harmful,” says Tafiq Akhir, owner and head coach of Tafiq’s Physiques in Los Angeles.
But for many users, the benefits these intelligent AI trainers offer appear to outweigh any risks. Nautilus has received more than a hundred positive customer reviews for their machines with Max Intelligence since they launched the product in Q4 last year. The Max Intelligence coach also provides spoken word encouragement, saying things like “Awesome! There went 100 calories” and “Bring the fire!” during your workout. You can choose voice-assisted programs or watch videos on a connected tablet. “The machine uses two AI engines,” explains Brendan Brown, product innovation manager at Nautilus. One collects data after each workout, and uses it to make personalized adjustments for future workouts, while the other actually shows you how to exercise. “If you’re just starting out and you’re only able to do seven minutes of exercise, we’re not going to shoot you straight into a 30-minute video,” Brown says. “We want you to scale up.”
Because AI algorithms improve with more data, the user experience should only improve as more people sign on. Freeletics leverages the data it gathers from their 33 million users — entirely anonymously — by identifying patterns in their fitness routines. This allows the algorithm to give users a training plan that fits well with their athletic capability and time constraints from their first session. After downloading the app, you provide information about your fitness goals. The objective is to make the routines effective but doable so you stick to your plan. Personalization is the key. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to fitness,” says Freeletics CEO Daniel Sobhani. “What might work wonders for one person may not work at all for another.”
The intelligent, AI-driven personal trainer is still only taking off, says Orady. But he’s convinced it’s only going one way. “It’s certainly the next level of connected fitness,” he says.